Dr Sasha Garwood
THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN
Early Modern Noblewomen and Self-starvation : the Skull Beneath the Skin
(Forthcoming, Routledge, 2018)
This book examines the multifaceted significance of food, feeding and the gendered body in early modern culture, looking at representations and understandings of women who starved themselves and then comparing these with surviving documentary ephemera describing the motivations, effects and uses of food refusal for case studies including Catherine of Aragon, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Katherine Grey, and Arbella Stuart. These women’s (royal) bodies possessed great practical, political and symbolic significance, and their position at the apex of social and household structures rendered them uniquely able to refuse readily available nutrition.
Anthropologist Carole M. Counihan states ‘the predominant role of women in feeding is a cultural universal, a major component of female identity, and an important source of female connections to and influence over others’. In early modern English ideology, a gendered concept of virtue hinged on self-denial and sexual continence, the connection between sex and food was a common cultural trope, and femininity was primarily associated with nature and the body rather than a (masculine) intellectual. Thus women’s ingestion of food became ideologically fraught: an acceptance and perpetuation of individual circumstance and subordinate status. Refusing it, therefore, is an act of disruption.
Looking first at male playwrights' attempts to reappropriate the specifically feminine behaviours of self-starvation into the dominant cultural paradigm and the resultant ideological manipulations (for instance, inedia as self-inflicted punishment for sexual transgression, or an acceptable means of suicide in response to oppression or violation), Early Modern Noblewomen and Self-starvation explores ways in which physicality and femininity can be deconstructed and reconstructed to serve particular ideological needs and moments. It concludes by discussing elite women's behaviour in relation to modern-day anorexia and eating disorders, reflecting on similarities, differences and the cultural and psychological insights offered by the comparison.
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